There are several different kinds of alternative-fuel technologies, and all of their descriptions and specs can quickly turn into an alphabet soup of acronyms.
Any car that runs on something besides petroleum is cool in our book. But drivers should choose the kind of vehicle that’s best for them. So here’s a rundown of some of the vehicle types out there that run on something other than oil.
Electric Vehicle (EV)
Just as the term says, this is a vehicle that runs on some sort of electrification. But there are different types of EVs. Such as:
Battery-Electric Vehicle (BEV)
A BEV is an EV that runs exclusively on electricity. You plug the car in and charge up the battery, either from a wall socket or a home fast-charging station that’s installed, or via a similar charging setup at a public place, like a parking garage or mall. Mainstream BEVs have only been around since 2010, when the Nissan LEAF made its debut. Now there are dozens of models to choose from. They include the Tesla Model S (pictured upper left), Model X and Model 3, as well as the Chevy Bolt and the Jaguar I-PACE.
Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV)
Plug-in hybrids are ingenious: They’re primarily gasoline-powered cars whose motors also use electricity stored in an onboard battery. Because the engine can switch seamlessly between gasoline and electricity, running on gas when the battery runs out, these cars can go hundreds of miles on a full charge/fill-up. For instance, the Ford Fusion Energi has a 25-mile battery range, but its efficiency on gasoline makes its total range about 600 miles. For comparison, the popular Chevy Volt (pictured right) has a 53-mile battery range and 420 miles of total range. For buyers who still have “range anxiety” that they’ll be stranded without access to a charger, this is the perfect way to secure peace of mind and still enjoy the benefits of an EV.
Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Vehicle (HFCV)
This is another type of electric vehicle, since the hydrogen pumped into the fuel cell creates electricity. The only byproduct to exit the tailpipe is water. Because of the advanced technology, HFCVs can run into money: The Honda Clarity leases at $369 a month for 36 months, with $2,868 due at signing (before a state $5,000 rebate), but it has a range of 366 miles. (The Clarity also comes in a battery-electric version and a plug-in hybrid version.) The Hyundai fuel cell crossover (pictured right) has an MSRP north of $50,000, with a range of 369 miles.
Natural Gas Vehicle (NGV)
Used widely in the Asia-Pacific and Latin American regions, NGVs are among the most popular types of fueling systems in the world. However, the technology never caught on in the United States for passenger vehicles: One of the few commercially available cars to run solely on natural gas was the Honda Civic, but the company discontinued it in 2015. A more thriving market is CNG buses (mainly for cities, transit authorities and schools) and heavy-duty industrial vehicles like garbage trucks. Some auto shops can convert passenger vehicles, including pickups, to run on CNG, but the tanks are heavy and expensive, running into the thousands of dollars. But CNG fuel is cheap at the stations that sell it, and combustion of natural gas produces fewer emissions than petroleum.
Flex-Fuel Vehicle (FFV)
Flex-fuel vehicles run on any mixture of gasoline and ethanol, up to 85 percent ethanol (E85). There are more than 20 million FFVs on the road in the United States, yet many owners aren’t even aware of this. In the past, telltale signs of an FFV would be “FlexFuel” or “E85” badging or signage on the rear of the vehicle; a yellow gas cap; and information on the inside of the fueling door. But these days these giveaways might not be there, so check your owner’s manual. Or to save time, use our Check Your Car interactive tool. Not only is E85 consistently cheaper at the pump, it also produces fewer emissions — both the ones that worsen smog and those that contribute to climate change — than diesel or gasoline. Drivers who use E85 also report better performance, owing to the higher octane: E85 has a rating of 91-93, well above the minimum of 87 for unleaded gasoline.